What kind of ignorant fool am I now?


[NOTE: This is resurrected from a blog post I did in 2010. Ignorance never goes out of fashion.]

Another week, and a week of reading through another flurry of aggravated blogs and blog comments on topics environmental, political, and other. One of the common strategies in these postings is to accuse someone of ignorance. “That ignorant so-and-so can’t seem to understand ________.” Calling someone ignorant is an increasingly easy, and unfortunately increasingly non-trivial attack these days. Me, I can’t understand how anyone would consider Donald Trump to be in any fashion a candidate for president. To some of my friends, that displays my own ignorance. I plead guilty. But what kind of ignorance am I guilty of?


Just as knowledge can and might well be considered to have a wide variety of types, so too does ignorance. The top of this list, up in the rarified climes of professional expertise, is the increasing ignorance of scientists in the face of an increasing deluge of scientific information (publications) and data resources. Even those in tiny specialties have seen the content load of new science double every few years. Some decades ago when I was a graduate student at Penn, I shared a house with three medical students. After their required specialty rotations each of them decided that pathology might be the only real occupation for their future. “We actually know so little about the human body,” they lamented, “It might be safer to study them after they’re dead.” Let me call this type of ignorance “professional-ignorance.” While scientists do their best to keep up and keep pace with the information load, they are all a little guilty of this. In their defense, they are the folks who face the actual precipice of the unknown–the edge of knowledge; and they are tasked to expand this knowledge envelope for us all. Their work defines the boundary between ignorance and knowability. However, “professional ignorance” is not the ignorance I’m usually reading about in the blogosphere,  even though science-bashing is back in vogue.


The next type of ignorance we find is what I would call “educated-ignorance.” There are far too few hours in a day or even a year to stay on top of all of the many possible topics of interest to any one individual. If even the experts have a hard time in their own fields, what sort of chance does anybody else have? Educated-ignorance is pretty much my life. I’ve spent several years learning how to learn various subjects, but I’m more or less (sometimes, I hope much less) ignorant about any of these, as I swim the mighty currents of an omnipresent information overload. Educated-ignorance is reflexive enough to understand its shortcomings. It is the knowledge virus of the information age. Fortunately, its victims are also savvy enough in just-in-time learning to turn a temporary lack of understanding into a more robust purview on any one selected topic. The educated-ignorant individual is appropriately suspicious of the entire notion of certainty. For even as she can, with some effort, cure her ignorance of, say, the impact of volcanic dust on jet engines, or the mysteries of credit default swaps, she knows that, in the weeks ahead, her lack of attention to these topics will increase her ignorance of them.  Calling someone who understands educated-ignorance “ignorant” has no real effect. They are prone to agree with you.


The remaining realm of ignorance is where its invective is based. It is used mostly by people who have selected a few cherished sources of information (perhaps a radio talk-show host or a famous blog). The insult is directed at everyone who have either chosen other sources of information or who have disagreements with the writer’s sources. The writer is usually certain that the messages his sources have revealed are so evident and so rational that anyone who listened to them would have to agree with them, and so would agree with him. This certainty is the launchpad for any number of claims of ignorance in others. It also reveals a more focused form of ignorance in the writer. As Eric Hoffer noted, “We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand.” Let’s call this “infallible-ignorance.” The infallibly ignorant has gathered all of her knowledge eggs into a tiny basket, and defends this with an unbridled ferocity. Here we find the bellowing of the demagogue, and the bluster of the true believer. The infallibly ignorant may have an under-developed skill in researching beyond the sources they trust, and can never understand the depth of their own ignorance.  They can change, of course. Most of us were like this at some point in high-school or college; clinging to the right to bullshit our way through life. Most people do move on, but the infallibly ignorant just dig in.

While there is certainly enough ignorance in the world for each of us to have our share, we can try our best to avoid the folly of infallible-ignorance, and to discover and overcome the limits of our knowledge at least for another day.

Who’s afraid of the big bad MOOC…


In his new book, Who Owns the Future?, Jaron Lanier warns us about “Siren Servers” (sirens because they appear to offer amazing value for our lives and seduce us by not charging for this) sucking the worth from our futures while externalizing risk and hoarding the aggregated value of our contributions as their own assets. He is talking about Facebook and Amazon and Google and Apple, etc.. In our present economy, he argues, she who owns the server owns the future.  Many of his concerns apply rather starkly to the big MOOC consortia. As he notes, “(h)igher education could be Napsterized and vaporized in a matter of a few short years.” (Lanier, 84).

In some ways, the picture of higher education as an advanced content delivery system—where MOOCs and other internet services will disintermediate the jobs of faculty by providing content universally—offers a Dorian Gray solution to the problems of accelerating costs in higher education. In this scenario, if you could MOOC-ify as much of the classroom content as possible, you could eliminate a majority of faculty jobs while offering city college students Harvard-level classes.  Higher education would look and work better and brighter, and be cheaper and more available than it is now. However, the real picture of higher education (presumably withered and grotesque, hidden in a locked closet somewhere) would remind us that learning only starts with content delivery and that understanding content (however this is delivered) is really just the first step in higher education. Everything beyond this improves with and through classroom conversations. In a recent (May 20, 2013) New Yorker article on MOOCs, Nathan Heller ends his exploration of online courses with a paean to in-class conversation: “Their discussion left an energetic silence in the room, a feeling of wet paint being laid on canvas.” If MOOCs were the only option left for students in the future, higher education would be as impoverished (in terms of learning) as its graduates are today (in terms of loans).

I discuss this issue more on HASTAC: Flipping the MOOC: networked badges and massive online peer evaluation (MOPE)

Image from the Picture of Dorian Gray… [Image used under CC license on Flickr: photo by MassafelliPhotography.]

This is Sad


I just finished listening to the David Foster Wallace commencement speech, entitled This is Water, given at Kenyon College in 2005. I bought the audio version online.

I found and purchased this because someone (The Glossary <http://www.theglossary.com/#home&gt;) with enormous talent took an audio excerpt from this and made a video that captured visually the core sentiment of the talk.This video was posted on the internet, and blogged on Open Culture and on other sites–from BoingBoing to the Drudge Report: with millions of views in its first week.  A few days ago I learned that the video was removed from the internet by the David Foster Wallace Literary Estate. <http://vimeo.com/65576562> This is Stupid.

I really like David Foster Wallace’s work. His New York Times piece on Roger Federer’s tennis game <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmagazine/20federer.html?pagewanted=all> is fabulously fun to read. Again, this summer, I am looking to find time to read Infinite Jest. So I might at some point have Googled up David Foster Wallace and might have discovered this speech. But I didn’t have to go looking for it. The minute I finished the video, I keyed in “This is Water” and found the publisher’s store. I can fully imagine others, many, many others, doing the same. (The publisher’s eCommerce store also, predictably, sucks.)

IMG_1128The reason this is stupid is not simply because the video was an excellent, effective advertisement for the work, but because the videographers did a great job capturing the tone and message of the work. For his estate and publisher to not know and to not applaud this accomplishment is worse than stupid.

The talk is marvelous in many ways. It builds an argument for a liberal education that has nothing to do with careers, unless you consider living to be a career. And it’s short. Powerful and well crafted. Well worth the $4.95. I’ll listen to it a lot before I consider I understand it well.

Wallace argues that education is about giving students the ability to choose to not buy into the default narratives that surround them as water surrounds a fish, but to live consciously a mundane life that is no longer anywhere near mundane. That his estate is trapped by the default narrative of copyright protection, blind to the amplification that this mash-up offered to the work, makes them as dim as any unschooled individual who can see no alternative to worshipping money, or beauty, or power. This is sad.

You can hear his talk here: This is Water.

Facebook, schmacebook: We’re getting tired of shopping at the company store

I can’t wait to get off Facebook. Everyone I know can’t wait to get off Facebook. We are all waiting for the next good thing to come along and take us off this island of wasted opportunities. The two questions surrounding this situation are these: what’s wrong with Facebook? and what can we know, say, or do to help the next good thing happen?
A large problem with Facebook has to do not with what it does (or fails to do) but what it is. In fact, Facebook nailed the whole “social” side of social networking early on, only to then lose it. Facebook is a piece of software run by someone else with a business model designed to maximize how my content can be used by them to make money, but not for me. I donate my content and my time, and they keep tweaking the service to make my contributions more valuable for them. This situation is hardly a secret, so we are not talking about deception here. Just bad faith. Facebook is a social network service designed to convert my efforts (and those of 500 million others) into their IPO. Fine. For this, what do I get? A place to pop up microblogs (status updates). A space for random photos and videos (and a not very good service in terms of storing and retrieving these).  A constantly changing user interface that sends me suggestions I don’t need. A collection of my stuff that forever and without compensation now belongs to Facebook. There is no exit from Facebook. Users can only flee. But flee to where?
The next good thing in social networking will have to so several things better than Facebook:
  • Be big and small at the same time. Be a network of networks where each network has the means and the incentive to become more coherent and thus more useful and attractive. 500m members don’t help me out. 500 of the right members, with the right tools. That’s what I’m looking for.
  • Build in real reputation services, on top of powerful collaboration and publication tools. I’m looking for a place to publish once and publish everywhere. I need to know who’s reading what I contribute. I want to reward others for their insights.
  • Build in content sharing services so that I can load up my really good content and have this licensed (Creative Commons) and cited.
  • Build in property and privacy rules so that I control my own contributions. Give me an exit that packages all my content for me to take somewhere else and erases all of this on the system. Chances are I will not use this, simply because it is there. If you love my content, let it go. That’s how you get me to stay.
  • Last, and most importantly: build in network governance so that I have a say in how my social network(s) in the system are managed. I might want to donate some time to curate a part of the content. I might want to help build some policies about member services. Governance is the launching pad for network growth. When members own their own networks they care for and about these. Leaders emerge. Members become evangelists. This is the future of social networking. It looks a lot like democracy. Get used to it.
Back when a mining company opened up in a remote village it would force its workers to use the company store by paying them with scrip only that store would honor. The prices in the company store were managed to the company’s benefit. Often it was a pastel kind of slavery. Sound a lot like Facebook? This is where we are today in the tail-end of the first generation of social networking. We are living our online lives in the company store. And we are ready to jump ship.
Photo Credit: CC licensed for reuse by jekemp

#1 All Hands e-Science meeting at Oxford University

Anne Trefethen from Oxford is opening up the All Hands e-Science meeting. 186 submissions for presentations shows the growth of interest and activity in the UK for Anne Trefethen from Oxford is opening up the All Hands e-Science meeting. 186 submissions for presentations shows the growth of interest and activity in the UK for e-Science research and practice. The meeting is on the outskirts of Oxford, at the football (soccer) stadium conference center. Next door (across the parking lot) is a bowling alley and multiplex cinema. No building older than 50 years anywhere in the vicinity. So the location looks more like Oxnard than Oxford. The crowd is appropriately geeky in an academic fashion. The opening keynote (Helen Bailey) is a dancer, talking about e-Science on practice-led research. Where does e-Science lie in the larger field of technology? Is it simply science research informatics? Is it centrally HPC? Is it science 101 (hint… ASCII)? The “e” stands for “electronic,” an extension from e-mail and/or e-commerce; both of the latter refer to internet-enabled transactions. Much of the “e” in e-science involves the use of networks of computers to enable collaborations across locations. The research “transactions” flow beyond single laboratories/universities.

Helen Bailey uses e-Science to build co-located dance performances where their are dancers from multiple locations in a single dance arena (using video feeds). This research focusses on the synchronous capabilities of an HPC network to support multiple video feeds in order to assemble a real-time event.

Helen’s website: http://www.beds.ac.uk/departments/pae/staff/helen-bailey

Photo Credit: http://www.arts-humanities.net/system/files/images/edance.jpg

Gathering privately online: the key to democracy


The door has a lock for a reason. Inside there is a group discussing their political choices and potential actions. In the US, this group has a right to assemble guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. However, this right is also contingent on the ability of group members to meet in private. And so the right to assemble also requires that the government not record who has assembled and what was said.
On the internet, there are few ways of hiding one’s identity (as this might be matched to the use of a computer) when you are conducting a virtual meeting. For virtual democracy to flourish, we need to find more ways to protect our presence online. This remains a software problem beyond the choices that people might make to reveal or conceal their identities. We need some sort of “anonymizer” service.
The EFF has also noted that we are physically tracked by the same devices we use to establish locations (the iPhone’s location services is a good example).  Check out this discussion of the EFF site.

Let’s find a way to lock the door on the internet!

photo credit: Doggie52 on Flickr, used under CC license